19 August 2013

A nation of minorities

There is a set of people, good-hearted (at least in their image of ‘self’) who blame all the ills of this country on what they call ‘majoritarianism’. Majority is a word that is used to refer to Sinhalese, Buddhists and Sinhala-Buddhists.  Majoritarianism is not a complimentary term.  In tone, inflection and facial expression, derision is pinned on it. Interestingly, the terms ‘multi-ethnic’ and ‘multi-religious’ are typically thrown in when talking of majoritarianism, while relevant numbers pertaining to percentages are studiously left out of the political text. 

‘Minoritarianism’ is not considered a term relevant to the discourse on identity politics, although we’ve had numerical minorities playing king-maker and queen-protector in our recent history.  Prabhakaran was neither a Sinhalese nor a Buddhist, but who can claim he did not set agenda and play a determinant role in our politics over the past three decades, even though he was not consecrated as ‘Maha Rajano’?  ‘The only minority is the bourgeoisie,’ someone once wrote.  Few object to the pernicious machinations of that particular segment, and no describes it as ‘Minoritarianism!’ Heck, few if at all use the terms capitalism and capitalist these days.
Still, numbers count, and where identities have been made to prevail over all other considerations, the numerically superior get the biggest say, at least in appearance.   The vast majority of citizens don’t have the privilege of dissecting appearance.  Leaders of the respective communities dependent on reaping the riches of identity politics will not dissect and offer nuanced explication of the complexities for the benefit of supporters.  What counts in the Politics of Moment is what appears and here numbers matter. 

Grievance, whether felt or constructed, is real. Fear comes naturally and from fear-mongering.  Insecurities can be misnamed.  Identity has multiple purposes for multiple entities.  And in this, ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ don’t make for more (or less) insecurity, fear, sense of being aggrieved, insulted, encroached upon, violated and threatened. 
The Sinhalese outnumber Tamils and Muslims.  Tamils and Muslims have grievances on account of being minorities in a political system where numbers count and where identity politics reigns.  Perceptions of injustice are add-ons that aggravate.  Buddhists outnumber Hindus, Muslims and Christians.  At the same time, in this globalized world where identity commonalities make for identification that spills over national boundaries, Buddhists and Sinhalese do have a ‘minority complex’ vis-à-vis, say, Christians and Muslims, and Tamils respectively. Again, this makes for fear, apprehension, sense of being encroached upon etc., all of which are ideal for exploitation by politicians. 

In sum, we are a nation of minorities, or else a population suffering from a minority complex.  We are driven by fear and whether or not there is justification for anxiety is politically irrelevant. Cutting through this conundrum is a tough ask, but the immediacy of numerical breakdown does confer greater responsibility on the part of the majority communities, not to be condescending (as in assuring protection) but to show restraint, rein in extremism and be active in engaging other communities with respect and understanding.
If we are all burdened with a minority complex then that is a commonality that ought to make it easier for us to empathize with one another.  We are a nation that has been and will be for quite some time more ready for inferno, for identity is forest made for burning.  It takes a single match, the striking of which requires just the work of a few fingers.  Dousing takes longer and in that time much is lost.  Regeneration takes even longer.  This is why, for example, the massive reconstruction efforts in the North and East are only a component of the larger effort of reconciliation. 

When a nation burns, the identity of the person who struck the first match is only of academic interest, at least to those who are engulfed by the inferno.  All the more reason for vigilance and all the more reason for those who abhor pyromaniacs to stop them or else do their best to put out whatever fires are out there. 
If Sinhalese and Buddhists feel threatened on account of global numbers, then they more than anyone else are positioned to empathize with other communities, religious or otherwise, who feel threatened. 

We may be a nation of minorities, but that can also be our strength, our ‘common ground’, our reason to embrace, rather than push aside.    


sajic said...

I met a man-some years ago-who had been forced out of his home in Colombo in 1983, and was now part of the Tamil 'diaspora'. He was a medical doctor; and bitter. His dreams had been shattered. He told me 'acca, the Sinhalese are a majority with a minority complex'.
You are right. We are all minorities in a sense. We will continue to be so until we open the windows of our hearts.